Not too long ago, the term Ponzi scheme wasn’t familiar to most households, but all that changed when Bernie Madoff raked in billions by defrauding all sorts of rich and famous people. The idea behind a Ponzi scheme is simple: Play upon people’s greed by promising astounding profits on investments only to keep the money. One of the more unusual Ponzi schemes in history didn’t rely on bilking the rich and powerful, but instead took place in Pennsylvania with a Polish immigrant defrauding numerous elderly investors in the ‘90s. But it wasn’t just any Polish immigrant who ran this massive machine of fraud, it was Jan Lewan, the “King of Pennsylvania Polka.” Now this unbelievable true story, which was the subject of the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, is the inspiration for The Polka King, the new comedy from the directing duo of Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky (Directors Guild of America rules dictated that Forbes be the sole credited director).
When we first encounter Jan Lewan (Jack Black) he’s on stage in a gaudy, shiny costume, entertaining the elderly of Polish descent with his lively oom-pah music. Jan is working tirelessly for his slice of the American Dream, working various jobs in the day to support his wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), and young son while performing at night with his trusted collaborator Mickey (Jason Schwartzman). Frustrated with the lack of money coming in from the band, Mickey is ready to quit when the ambitious Jan pleads with him to stay. It’s then that Jan conceives an idea to take investments on his musical career, and the popular polka king has no problem securing funding from grey-haired residents of the area, striking the deals in the back of his Polish knick-knack shop which will soon serve as a front for his illicit business.
Even though The Polka King and its script by Forbes and Wolodarsky aims for comedic overtones, the joking elements of the film don’t always land. Despite that, the writing-directing duo present the story with enough visual gusto that it’s always captivating even if you’re not laughing all the way through. What really keeps The Polka King consistently watchable is the performance by Jack Black, who inflects a Polish accent and brings so much energy to his performance that he almost singlehandedly elevates the film in its weaker spots. Black’s musical talents are also on display as he belts out lively versions of the polka hits that the real life Lewan brought to the stage.
As happens in these stranger than fiction true crime stories, Jan Lewan eventually finds himself in over his head. At first, he’s investigated by Ron Edwards (J.B. Smoove), an SEC officer who pulls back his case after Lewan claims to have stopped taking investments. As the SEC backs off, Lewan’s mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver) has mounting suspicions about her son-in-law, and his increasingly secretive behavior on top of a lavish lifestyle supposedly funded by the profits of his dead Polish trinket store only increases her suspicions. Of course, Jan is in too deep to turn back despite the mounting pressures enveloping his life. And yet Jan still orchestrates a travel group of his dedicated fans, taking them to Europe for a meeting with Pope John Paul II. (The photo of the actual meeting appears in the end credits.) Jan hires a videographer to document his performances so he can sell the tapes at a later date. All the while, Marla grows tired of being known as merely the wife of the “Pennsylvania Polka King” and restarts her career in beauty pageants, only to have her victory rescinded in the wake of a bribery scandal.
The Polka King is an uneven but entertaining film. When it’s not work, though, there’s an energy from the cast and crew that prevent the film from ever becoming dull. Jack Black gives a fantastic performance that plays to his strengths as a musician and comedic actor, something he really hasn’t had a chance to do in a movie since 2011’s Bernie. Truth is truly stranger than fiction in this unbelievable true story that plays out like a dark, twisted version of the American Dream.